Also see John's review of A Christmas Story
Bess is not the only person in the barn in crisis; one of the players, Ned Lowenscrofta leading performer of women's rolesis dying of syphilis contracted during an affair with one of the Queen's captains. Over the course of the night, Nedemboldened by the fact that he has little to risk in these last months of his lifechallenges the Queen to confront her emotional needs and acknowledge her womanhood, while in turn the Queen challenges Ned to be manly in facing his impending death. The Queen has the power to grant Essex a reprieve, but she must not only make that decision before dawn, but also get word to the Tower of London before the executioner begins his work. Whether she will make that choiceand compromise her royal obligations for the sake of her human needsis the question that provides the play its tension and propels the action forward. Ned and the Queen are parallel figures: The Queen is a woman in the traditionally male role of head of state, while Ned is a man who assumes women's roles as a professional actor. And, contrary to the custom of the time, he has continued to do so well into adulthood, unlike the boys and young men who traditionally took those roles. He is shown to be an effeminate man, and his unseen lover is recalled as a paragon of masculinity. Findley's thesis is that both genders must learn to embrace both their masculine and feminine naturesboth sexes need to be strong as well as sensitive.
Findley takes the entire first act to set up this proposition and the challenge between Ned and the Queen, so we sit through a lot of exposition and talk until things get exciting in the shorter second act. While the play itself is sort of a B+ script, Chicago Shakes' production is worth seeing for the stunning performances of the two leads. Diane D'Aquila, who originated the part in the Stratford premiere, is charismatic as the Queen and deftly manages the role's many layers. She makes her surprise visit to the stable with all the regality and authority of a monarch, yet subtly indicating to the players (and without betraying her station) that she needs their human company this evening. She's clearly the boss, as we see most notably when her Secretary of State Lord Robert Cecil (Torrey Hanson) arrives. Yet her humanity becomes evident as the hour of Essex's execution approaches and Ned's taunts break down her defenses. D'Aquila gives us the Queen's authority and presence as well as revealing a sensitivity and pain that were certainly not apparent to most those around her at Court.
D'Aquila's performance is matched by Steven Sutcliffe as Ned. Ned is fighting his demise as fully as he can and Sutcliffe, a Canadian actor who's performed frequently as Stratford, shows the man's strength of spirit emerging through his failing body. He gives Ned the power to stand up to the Queen to an unthinkable degree. Sutcliffe, the original Younger Brother in Broadway's Ragtime, even gets to sing and show off his magnificent voice.
These two strong performances in scenery-chewing roles eclipse the fine work of the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Gudahl as Shakespeare, Bradley Armacost, Brenda Barrie, Matt Farabee, Eric Parks, Roderick Peeples, Jude Roche, Andrew Rothenberg and Mary Ann Thebus. Under the direction of Barbara Gaines, these secondary roles all emerge as distinct characters. Daniel Ostling's set of rough hewn wooden beams successfully creates the royal stables and Mariann S. Verheyen's costumes effectively cover everything from the Queen's royal gown to the troupe's costumes and commoner wear. Melissa Veal's wigs and makeup design give the Queen her trademark look, and the lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg captures a middle-of-the night mood breaking way to dawn.
Though this is not as rich a play as one might hope for, the chance to hang out backstage with Shakespeare and Company, along with one of the leading figures in world history, is just about irresistible. The chance to see two of North America's top actors sparring makes it all the more worthwhile.
Elizabeth Rex will be performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through January 22, 2012. For tickets, visit www.chicagoshakes.com, the box office, or call 312-595-5000.